How come Formula One tyres have no treads at all?


The tyres of Formula One cars are very highly specialised.

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Do the Formula One tyre choices of “slicks” “intermediates” or “full wets” have any relevance to ordinary motoring, or are they in a different world? After all, their fastest and most grippy tyre on dry tarmac has no tread at all!

The tyres of Formula One cars are, of course, very highly specialised.

They need rubber compounds, reinforcing cords and sidewall strengths and grip good enough to achieve (and cope with) top speeds well more than 300 kph, and go around corners so fast that drivers have to be highly trained athletes to cope with the bombardment of G forces involved. The tyres cope with such extraordinary speeds, forces and loads that they go from brand-new to finished in 60 kms, which they complete in less than 20 minutes.

You are right to qualify your assessment that slicks (no treads) are their fastest and grippiest tyres… on dry tarmac. This is true. But it is not the tyres that are fastest — it is the road surface, and slicks harness it best. But slicks would also be the slowest and most slippery… if the road got wet or transitioned to a loose surface.

In light rain, the road would be slower but intermediates with shallow treads would give the best (though slower) lap times, and in heavy rain, the road would be even slower and full wets with deep tread channels would set the best pace on it.

Certainly, Formula One tyres operate on a very different level—a “different world” – but the physical principles of what they can and can’t do and the most efficient materials and designs are the same. F1 competitive pressures and values focus obsessive effort and huge budgets on technical innovation, and the lessons learned inevitably inform and advance all tyre technology.

But here’s a point to ponder: Formula One cars – their engines, their drive trains, their bodywork, their aerodynamic downforces, their hybrid power boosters, their brakes and indeed their tyres are the technological pinnacle, when cornering at more than 200 kph.

But put them in conditions that a family car has to face and they would be almost undriveable.

Their engines would splutter and cough at low revs, their tyres and brakes would never get hot enough to work properly, their gearing would be disastrously mismatched, and without the speed to generate serious downforce, they would be quite unstable, even at lower speeds, when cornering.

On your specific point, slicks are the quickest and most grippy – but only when the road is firm and dry and only when they are being driven flat out, spun and scrubbed enough to generate temperatures that make their rubber compound almost melt; that makes them “sticky” as they say in F1-speak. At lower temperatures they are just…bald tyres.

F1 Intermediates are just half-worn-out treaded tyres. Full wets are the nearest to new “ordinary” tyres, but if they were used at full F1 power on dry tarmac they wouldn’t last 6 kms, never mind 60, and the car would likely spin off into the crash barriers even quicker than that.